At long last, murder charges bring relief, healing to Pike County

The reward billboard remains after arrests have been made in the Rhoden family slaying case that happened 2½ years ago, putting Pike County residents on edge. TY GREENLEES / STAFF
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The reward billboard remains after arrests have been made in the Rhoden family slaying case that happened 2½ years ago, putting Pike County residents on edge. TY GREENLEES / STAFF

‘It was the greatest news,’ says pastor as community reacts to arrests in long, unsolved murder case.

As legal proceedings begin for the six people arrested in connection to the slaying of eight people in Pike County in 2016, a wave of relief spread over this rural community traumatized by 2½ years of not knowing if the case would ever be solved.

The first suspect to appear in court was George “Billy” Wagner III, who said he wouldn’t fight extradition during his appearance Wednesday in a Fayette County, Ky., courtroom.

Wagner, who was arrested Tuesday in a pulled-over horse trailer in Lexington, must be back in Ohio by Dec. 7 and may be transported to the Butler County jail, according to Sheriff Richard K. Jones.

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Prosecutors hope to seek the death penalty for Billy, as well as his wife Angela Wagner and their sons George Wagner IV and Edward “Jake” Wagner. The four are accused of a complicated conspiracy to kill eight people at four different Pike County homes.

Billy’s mother, Fredericka Wagner, and Angela’s mother, Rita Newcomb, are scheduled to be arraigned this afternoon in Pike County, according to a court official. They are charged with perjury and obstruction of justice. Newcomb is also facing a forgery charge.

Authorities say it will likely take years for the courts to determine if all the family members are guilty or innocent of the crimes. But assurances from law enforcement that no one else responsible is on the loose put nerves at ease.

“When I heard that last night, a sigh came over me like a ton of bricks lifted off of me,” said Robert Oberdier as he walked to his truck from the Briar Patch convenience store just outside Lucasville.

“When people are out like that, nobody knows where they are,” he said. “You can’t believe anybody, you can’t trust anybody. The community is in a lot better shape right now.”

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‘Putting a band-aid on an open wound’

Bill Harbert, a barber in Waverly, the Pike County seat, said the arrests amounted to “putting a band-aid on an open wound. It’s definitely trying to heal itself now.”

Harbert said his customers have speculated for years about who could have committed a crime so sophisticated it apparently left investigators with few leads. There was a spike in applications for conceal carry permits, he said.

“We feel a little safer now, thinking that they’re off the street, hoping the right people are off the street,” he said. “It’s been scary for the whole community.”

He said the Wagners were known for having a nice farm and real estate, and “nothing really bad was ever said around here about them.”

Morty Throckmorton, manager of the Smart Mart discount store in Piketon, said she didn’t know either family, but the whole community was affected by the crime.

“This put a hurtin’ on this little town,” she said. “You could see people who was scared”

“It’s going to be a scar, but with time it will heal.”

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Closure still far off

The victims became familiar names to Ohioans in the 935 days between the murders and Tuesday’s announcement about the arrests, as news organizations frequently descended on this lightly populated area 100 miles southeast of Dayton for updates, even when there was little news to report.

Their names — Christopher Rhoden Sr.; his ex-wife Dana Manley Rhoden; and their three children Hanna May Rhoden, Christopher Rhoden Jr., and Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden; Frankie Rhoden’s fiancée, Hannah “Hazel” Gilley; the elder Christopher Rhoden’s brother Kenneth Rhoden; and cousin Gary Rhoden — won’t ever be forgotten here.

Saundra Ford, a co-worker of Dana Rhoden’s, said the community’s attention turned to the Wagners when they moved to Alaska last year.

“The minute they left town everybody started speculating,” she said.

But while the community is feeling relief, it may be a while before they get closure, said Matt Lucas, managing editor of the Pike County News Watchman.

“Everybody kind of wondered if the day would ever come when they would make any arrests,” he said, noting the toll years of legal proceedings could have on the victims’ family and friends.

“The process is just beginning and it’s not over by a long stretch,” he said. “Something has happened. There’s movement on the case. But it’s in the early stages as far as closure.”

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Family pastor

The pastor for the slain family hopes the arrests will lead to closure for the Manley and Rhoden families, as well as the community.

Phil Fulton, pastor at Union Hill Church in Adams County, said he was “ecstatic” when he found out about the arrests.

“It was the greatest news we had in two and a half years,” he said.

While many in Pike County believed the case would go unsolved, Fulton knew the answers would come eventually.

“I was expecting it to come, but I didn’t know when,” he said. “It was just great news to know they had finally made the arrests and that the closure could really come.”

Though a motive hasn’t been announced, investigators said custody issues between Edward “Jake” Wagner and Hanna Rhoden, one of the victims with whom he shared a child, played a role.

“Jake was very good friends and was really close to this family until the custody battle came up,” Fulton said. “Why this set them off is the mystery to me.”

The charges, if proven, are shocking, the pastor said:”Why you’d murder eight people because you wanted full custody over a little girl. It just blows my mind.”

Fulton hopes the arrests bring some peace to the victims and their families.

“The Rhoden family can finally rest assured that their family members will have justice,” he said.

John Bedell of WHIO-TV and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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